Proposed Hillsborough County budget includes cuts to after-school programs, changes to seniors' meal service

TAMPA — After-school programs in Hillsborough County parks would be offered in fewer locations and likely be provided by nonprofit groups such as the YMCA or Boys & Girls Clubs.

Shut-in seniors who have gotten warm meals delivered daily are now faced with getting multi-packs of frozen dishes that they must heat up themselves.

And people seeking building permits or zoning adjustments should soon get a one-stop shop where, county officials hope, they'll get quicker answers.

Those are some of the more tangible changes included in the $3 billion budget that County Administrator Mike Merrill delivered to commissioners Friday. It's a spending plan that responds to a fifth consecutive year of declining tax receipts, particularly property taxes. It also includes a modest cut in property tax rates.

Just five years ago, Hillsborough County raised $813 million in property taxes, its primary spigot of money to pay the salaries of sheriff's deputies, firefighters and camp counselors. The county anticipates $561.5 million in property tax collections next year, a $22 million decline from this year.

Rather than maintain a strategy of cutting services, reconfiguring debt and scrimping in some areas to keep some programs going, Merrill said this budget reflects a fundamental restructuring.

"We were using our savings account to pay for routine expenses," Merrill said. "We did it consciously because we needed time to address some difficult issues. We had to figure out how to maintain services while getting back to living within our means."

Many of the changes Merrill's budget proposes represent behind-the-scenes consolidation of government operations — from accounting to purchasing — that make possible the programs that are more visible to the public.

"If I had to pick a theme, I would call it streamlining services, either internally or to the public," said Bonnie Wise, Merrill's chief financial administrator.

The budget contemplates the elimination of another 449 full- or part-time jobs, on top of the nearly 1,000 that have been eliminated in the past four years. Merrill said many of the positions are vacant.

Of those that aren't, some of the cuts will take place through a voluntary buyout program that some 100 employees have already sought out. It allows retirement-age employees to receive as much as $25,000 if they agree to quit by the end of the month.

Those employees who remain will see at least two more years of frozen wages, even as the state forces them to contribute 3 percent of their pay toward pensions.

With law enforcement and fire protection services left largely untouched, other government programs, from parks to social services and growth management, are taking the lion's share of cutbacks.

Among the more visible cuts, programs at the county's 41 parks would be consolidated into 13 regional locations. After-school programs would likely get farmed out to private providers, with poor children qualifying for grant-money vouchers if their families can't afford the cost.

Additionally, $127 million in planned construction is also recommended to be tabled until at least 2014, from a proposed soccer complex to widening of parts of Fletcher and Linebaugh avenues.

Despite the cutbacks, Merrill's budget includes set-asides to help lure businesses that would want to move to or expand in Hillsborough County. It also would extend to 18 the number of consecutive years the county has cut its property tax rate, however incrementally. This year's cut would reduce the county's portion of a property tax bill for home valued at $200,000 with a $50,000 homestead exemption by 72 cents.

Commissioners are scheduled to hold a workshop on the budget Wednesday.

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Proposed Hillsborough County budget includes cuts to after-school programs, changes to seniors' meal service 06/03/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 4, 2011 12:46am]

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